It's Opening Night at the Wells Fargo Center, and the new era of Sixers basketball is about to begin. There's the red carpet and the light show and the orchestra and the video presentation and Ayla Brown - "American Idol" finalist, daughter of a U.S. senator - singing the national anthem. The new owners are honored. Sixers legends are in the building. The crowd is buzzing.
Then, moments before the game begins, an announcement is made over the din: "Welcome to the floor, Loooouuu Will-i-ams!"
No, this isn't the starting lineup. This is just Williams, a Sixers reserve, being called onto the court to address the fans. He takes the microphone and holds it close to his mouth, as if he's about to sing. But he doesn't sing. He walks. And talks, as if he's a game-show host about to invite everyone in the building to come on down.
"How's everyone doing?" he starts. There are 19,408 people in the arena, yet his tone is so casual, so intimate, that you'd think he is trying to begin a conversation with each of them. Some cheer. Some even answer. There's an audible "Loooooou" going through the stands, in the same way that Eagles fans once said "Deuuuuce!" and Phillies fans once said "Raaaaul!" Williams stops at midcourt, glances around the arena - behind the Sixers bench, across the Sixers bench - never looking to the floor. His words are hurried but smooth, and he speaks with a preternatural confidence that would make you think he does it for a living.
"On behalf of the organization and my teammates," Williams says, "we've been working extremely hard to make you proud. We won't let you down. Enjoy the game."
He hands the microphone back to a public-relations official and returns to the bench, where he spends the first 7 minutes of the game.
Perhaps in a different city, or any other professional sports franchise, it might seem strange to have a bench player address a sellout crowd on the season's opening night - an event choreographed to herald the team's new ownership. But for the Sixers - a squad that spent the first 2 months of the season in first place despite the lack of a superstar - it made sense for Williams to address the crowd. He may not be a starter. Or an All-Star (that would be Andre Iguodala). Or the team's highest-paid player (Elton Brand). Or even the brightest hope for the future (think Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner). But Williams is the player who best represents the Sixers. "I'm part of the cloth, how this city breathes," Williams says. "I'm one of those types of people."
The first article ever written about Lou Williams - then known as Louis Williams - came when he was a ninth-grader. It was by an Atlanta-area newspaper, and Williams' mother, Janice Faulkner, liked it so much that she sent a thank-you email to the reporter.
"I'll be doing lots of articles on your son," the reporter replied.
That was life for the best high school basketball player in the country. As a freshman at South Gwinnett High School in the affluent Atlanta suburb Snellville, Ga., Williams scored 47 points against a team that went on to win the state championship and featured the player of the year. The next day, then-South Gwinnett coach Roger Fleetwood pointed to Williams and told his wife that that skinny freshman would take them further in basketball than they've ever been.
Fleetwood was right. Williams developed into the Naismith Award winner in the Class of 2005, which also included future NBA stars Monta Ellis and Andrew Bynum. He committed to play at the University of Georgia, although that was never paramount in his plans. Williams graduated from South Gwinnett during the last year that high schoolers were eligible to enter the NBA draft, and he was resolute on becoming a professional.
Leading up to the draft, he never envisioned landing in Philadelphia. The Sixers did not possess a first-round pick that season, and Williams' advisers believed he merited a selection late in the first round. So Williams bypassed an interview with the team and declined a chance to work out. He was still available when the Sixers were on the clock with the No. 45 overall selection, and the decision coming out of the Sixers draft room was unanimous: Take the talent. See what happens.
Williams boarded a plane from Atlanta to Philadelphia, "nervous as hell," he admits 7 years later. He didn't know the Sixers. Didn't know the city. Didn't know the situation. His advisers negotiated a guaranteed contract, which is not a requirement in the NBA's second round, and which Williams made a prerequisite for skipping college. That started the process of proving himself to a team and a fan base that didn't know or care what Williams had done in Georgia, where his high school games became such events that they drew local celebrities, including then-Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
"I was a little naive," Williams says, "I was going to come in and pick up where I left off in high school."
It's a Friday night in January, and the Sixers are 75 minutes from tipping off against the Charlotte Bobcats, and Lou Williams is going through his pregame shooting with assistant coach Aaron McKie. Williams wears a white long-sleeved Sixers shirt and either long shorts or short pants, depending upon your sartorial interpretation. A group of children wait behind the Sixers bench, trying to get the attention of any player who breezes past them. But they're really waiting for Lou. They call his name while he shoots - "Loooou! Loooou!" - sounding every bit like the schoolgirls some of them are.
Williams finishes his warm-up and signs autographs without breaking stride. There's nothing awkward about this; he acts as if he's doing the seventh take of a movie scene. Just another game on another night in another season in Philadelphia. He greets the security guards who stand at attention by the locker room tunnel's entrance and enters the locker room to pass the final minutes before game time.
This is Williams now, embraced and beloved by Sixers fans. But for the early part of Williams' career, he was stuck in anonymity. As a rookie, he played in only 30 games and averaged fewer than 5 minutes. Early in his second year, Williams still couldn't find his way off the Sixers bench. He was 19 and his contemporaries from high school were garnering headlines for their play in college. Williams soaked up knowledge that first season and a half by watching Allen Iverson and learning from veterans such as Kevin Ollie and Willie Green. But he wasn't playing. So Williams did something almost unheard of in the modern NBA: He asked management to send him to the development league - otherwise known as a demotion - just so he could play.
"It was hard for me to find somewhere to fit in at the time," Williams says. He went to Fort Worth, Texas, and played three games for a team called the Fort Worth Flyers. He played like he was back at South Gwinnett, averaging 28 points and eight assists and fortifying the confidence he never was able to display in Philadelphia.
His timing proved impeccable. During the week he was in Texas, the feud between Iverson and Sixers management boiled over. The Sixers were determined to trade Iverson and promoted Williams. He took a flight back to Philadelphia before a Dec. 8, 2006, game against the Wizards, arriving at halftime. Without Iverson, coach Maurice Cheeks played Williams the final seconds of the game, then 9 minutes in the following game. Iverson was soon traded, and Williams' playing time increased. "No looking back since then," Williams says.
It was a precarious time in Sixers history. The Iverson fallout crippled the franchise, leaving a team without an identity and a fatigued fan base. The residual ire could have fallen on Williams, who played a style similar to Iverson's amid a rash of Sixers losses. Instead, there was intrigue to his game and personality - from the franchise and its fans. He averaged 11.5 points per game off the bench in 2007-08, and entered free agency at 21, with the chance to cash in. Instead, Williams elected to stay with the Sixers. He signed a 5-year, $25 million contract. The number was nothing to scoff at, but it also wasn't as much as he could have got going elsewhere. But he wanted to stay; he felt comfortable with the city and the team.
"I'm a creature of habit," he says. "I don't really like change. I was comfortable here, liked the group that we have."
The biggest strides - at least in terms of his public persona - came two seasons ago. Eddie Jordan coached the Sixers during an otherwise forgettable season, yet Williams started 38 games. They were the only starts of Williams' career. He scored 14 points per game and established himself as a fixture in the league. Now, he's the Sixers' leading scorer and thriving under Doug Collins. Collins said he just wishes he coached Williams as a rookie, because the development that has come in the past two seasons could have occurred sooner.
John Kuester, a Lakers assistant who was on the Sixers staff when Williams was a rookie, says that teams know they have to game-plan for Williams.
"What he's doing ain't really no secret," says Clippers forward Reggie Evans, a former teammate of Williams' in Philadelphia. "If it's a secret, I don't know what people be looking at. They didn't give him that contract for nothing. One thing he can do, he can put it in the basket."
One day when Williams was a freshman in high school, he found himself sitting at a table with some students whom his basketball coach, Roger Fleetwood, considered troublemakers. This worried the coach, who planned on talking with Williams about avoiding trouble. He never got the chance. The next morning, Williams sat at a different table on the opposite side of the cafeteria.
"On his own, at 14, he was very aware of people around him trying to influence in any way," Fleetwood says. "Right away, at 14, he already moved. And nobody moves. That would be lucky for a senior to be mature enough to handle that, but a 14-year-old? He was always older between his ears. Always."
This is a common description of Williams, whom his mother considers an "old soul." To this day, Williams doesn't have a posse; he has his brother, who is 10 years older than he, and his best friend from high school. In Philadelphia, where he has been in the public consciousness since 2005, it's sometimes hard to believe that he's only 25. He still boasts a baby face and maintains a lanky frame on his 6-1 body. Faulkner said that if she didn't know her son, she would think he looked 19 or 20. Upon speaking with him, though, she would think he's somewhere between 30 and 40.
"Sometimes he shocks me with his wisdom," Faulkner says. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Where did that come from?' "
So where does it come from? It starts with his family. Born in Memphis but raised in the Atlanta area, where his family moved after his father passed away and his mother remarried, Williams has always been close with his older brother, and spent most of his time as a kid hanging around his brother's friends. "I've always been friends with guys who are 6, 7 years older than me," Williams says. "I've always had a maturity level different than guys my age."
So when he was an 18-year-old on a team with Iverson, it didn't faze him. When he was a multimillionaire at 21, it didn't affect him. And when he was asked at 25 to be a public conduit between the fans and the teams, it didn't bother him.
Last season, Williams made a documentary about his life, "Peace of Mind." The opening scene shows him parking his black Porsche on the corner of 21st Street and Indiana Avenue in North Philadelphia. He goes to the barbershop that he visits while in the city, found through a friend he made in North Philly during his rookie season. "I'm an Atlanta guy. I think Philly knows that," Williams says. "But I've adopted Philly as my second home, and they've embraced me. I do more community work in Philly than I do in Atlanta, because I'm here more often and I see where people need help. I see the struggles."
The documentary was viewed on YouTube by only a few thousand people, but it provided a glimpse into who Williams is, or who at least how he wants us to think of him. It goes from Atlanta to Philadelphia, from tending the DJ booth at a nightclub to caring for his 1-year-old daughter, Jada, at home. It shows Williams sorting his allotment of game tickets and providing winter jackets in a coat drive. In one of the scenes, he's flying from Atlanta to Philadelphia and reveals his secret for finding leg room in coach. "You can't afford no first-class ticket; either book your seat in row 10 or exit row, rows 21 and 22," Williams says. "It's the same amount of legroom as first class. You heard it here first. I do this."
Later, Williams discusses the accessibility he provides to the fans, whether it's through social media or community work or just hanging out around town. "In my mind, I'm normal," he says at one point in the documentary.
"Basketball and being in the NBA is a great thing, but to me, it's my job and it's what I do. It don't define me. It complements how I live." That's a theme that Williams often comes back to: that there really isn't much separating him from those sitting in the stands, an accessibility that may explain why he's more beloved than belittled.
It may also explain why a story of Williams' interaction with a would-be mugger over the winter didn't seem outlandish. On Christmas Eve, he was driving in Manayunk when a man with a gun approached Williams' car. That's when things got weird. The gunman reportedly recognized Williams - and then commended him for his work in the community. To diffuse the situation, Williams gave his armed assailant some money and treated him to a meal at McDonald's.
"There's crime everywhere," Williams said at the time. "I was debating whether to pull off or help the guy. The gun was already out. He did all the talking and we came up with a solution before I could really say much."
But Williams' odd place in the firmament of Philly sports stems from more than his community work and or his perceived authenticity. Part of it is because Williams has a keen sense of who he is. He's not a star, and knows he never will be. He's the sixth man for a team with about as much glamour as a community theater troupe. And it's a role he's come to embrace. In fact, Collins said Williams' acceptance of coming off the bench makes him one of the two players who best represent the team this season. (Thaddeus Young is the other.)
Maybe more than in any other city, Philadelphia fans tend to appreciate guys like that, athletes who subsume their egos for the good of the team. It's how all of us think we'd act had we hit the genetic lottery and been able to play in the NBA. Besides, it's a lot more fun to complain about the team's most talented player, or the highest-paid, than it is someone like Williams, a guy who doesn't choke the payroll or complain about his minutes or blame the coach's "system" for his not being an All-Star. Plus, Sixers fans have witnessed how Williams has developed over the years.
"A lot of these guys don't understand that, because they have so much success from a young age," says McKie, who enjoyed a similar progression and role when he was with the Sixers.
Williams did, recognizing his opportunity and embracing his place. When the game starts, that's on the bench. At the end of the game, it's often with the ball in his hands. And throughout the game, it's hearing the appreciation of a fan base serenading him with "Loooooou."